Inside D.C. entertainment

Why haven't more people heard of singer/actress Joyce Bryant?

May 19, 2011 - 01:30 PM
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Jim Byers first heard of singer Joyce Bryant while he was a student at Sidwell Friends. "I went to Sidwell here in D.C., and I would wait for my mom to pick me up from school--buses didn’t go that far then--so I'd wait in the library, and flip through the old Life magazines," says the host of WPFW's Latin Flavor. "One day while I was flipping, I saw this four or five page feature article on an African-American celebrity I'd never heard of. Even as a kid I was into all things vintage, and I'm not saying I knew everybody, but in the early '50s, you did not see small time performers featured in Life. Maybe some white starlet may have had the right agent and would've gotten a Life magazine article, but that didn’t happen with black people."

Two weeks later, Byers came across Bryant's face again. 

"I was looking through a book, Portraits, by Philippe Halsman, and I see Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, and Joyce Bryant.  I'm thinking this is crazy, who is this woman?"

Byers would eventually learn why the singer/actress, who was once famous enough to grace the pages of Life, had faded into obscurity; many years after seeing her face in a magazine in his school library, he'd track her down and start work on the documentary Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva.

The film won't be complete until next year, but Byers will offer a sneak peek--excerpts from the documentary and a lecture on Bryant--at a Joyce Bryant-themed edition of the D.C. Music Salon on June 15, at the Shaw Library.

"As far as I’m concerned, this is right in wheelhouse of what the Music Salon should be doing," says founder Marc Eisenberg. "This is exactly what we want to do--especially since we can't have Jim in every bar to tell people about Joyce Bryant."

Byers would learn that Bryant had a four-and-a-half octave range, performed both at home and internationally, and was the first black entertainer to play at any Miami Beach hotel, a huge milestone that broke the color barrier for entertainers in the resort town in the 1950s. She sang at the Copacabana and other comparable venues of the era, and even nabbed a few small roles in a couple of studio pictures. But when her recordings were shelved and her film appearances cut, the California native left the industry, in 1955. She returned to her Seventh Day Adventist roots, singing only to raise money for her church, Byers says in a bio of Bryant available on his site. Her D.C. connection comes a decade later, when she studied voice at Howard University (at the urging of a university vocal coach who discovered she was teaching kindergarten in the city and remembered who she was), which eventually helped her win a contract with the New York City Opera, a gig that allowed her to tour internationally for years. 

Byers started unearthing this history in the 1990s, when he was a freelance music critic with the Washington Post, and was offered the opportunity to do a feature story on Bryant.  It took him six months to track her down, through a relative, but when Byers finally talked to Bryant, he says they hit it off immediately. "She was wary, she’d been approached by people before, and had left the business so long ago, but luckily, we hit it off," he says. "About three to four conversations in, I said 'This isn’t an article--this is huge.'"

Bryant initially allowed Byers to be her authorized biographer. He started researching her past and ran into an obstacle: At the time, many of the black magazines, including Sepia, Jet, and Ebony, weren't fully archived anywhere, including the Library of Congress. They had issues dating back to the '60s, but he needed articles from the '50s. 

"My research was based on flipping through page after page of Ebony, Jet--I'd buy things online, and sell them back if there wasn't anything about her," Byers says. 

About a year after Byers began research, he decided, at he urging of a friend, to turn the project into a documentary--people would not only learn about Bryant's life, but be able to see and hear her, as well. Byers says finding footage of Bryant, widely considered the first dark-skinned sex symbol, was no easy task.

"Her story is emblematic of the hazards of the entertainment business of that particular era," Byers says. "A particular cocktail of race, skin color, of the transition of music from swing to jump blues...Joyce was America’s first dark-skinned woman promoted as a love goddess--today it doesn't seem that striking,but at the time it was revolutionary. Southern movie distributors protested, and said, 'we're not going to show this dark-skinned woman in our theaters,' and cut her scenes from the films. So, you can’t see her, you can’t hear here, and she left popular culture more than a half century ago. Combine those things, and you have someone who literally slipped through the cracks, but every single person you talk to from that time--Nancy Wilson, Maurice Hines--will say she was the most devastatingly powerful stage presence they'd ever seen."

In fact, Byers was so determined that people witness Bryant's performances that he put the project on hold for several years--until he discovered two "off-the-radar" television appearances Bryant made. "We've got them, and we're back in production, finishing the project," Byers says. "The project was about 70% complete in 2005, but I would've thrown myself off of a bridge if I'd wrapped it up with no quality vintage footage of her."

So, next year, the film will be complete and people will finally know more about a woman who once hung out with Sammy David Jr. and Eartha Kitt, but whose fame had been so deeply buried that not even her own relatives knew its full extent.

"Upon meeting her, we did a lot of filming at her niece’s home, and I brought a book with clippings from Life, Time, the multiple covers in the Johnson publications, like Jet. Her niece's jaw was on the floor. She was like, 'We knew she was a singer, but...Auntie that's you in Life magazine!' I think they thought she sang at a lounge at the airport or something."

"People look back and say, 'She couldn't have been that big--she didn't have any record hits, she's not on film,'" Byers continues. "But talk to the people who were there. I think with her being so ill-documented by visual media, with her records being banned, I really think it has relegated her to a singularly deep obscurity."



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